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Memorial Minute: Peter Goldsmith, 1952-2004

With Peter Goldsmith’s death so recently behind us, it is with an uncomprehending heart that I share these reflections. Peter was a gift to Oberlin College, and his contributions to our institution will be appreciated and built upon for many years to come. Peter’s friendship—professional and personal—was a gift to many of us. And that is where his loss will be felt most keenly.

I met Peter more than 17 years ago in Princeton, N.J. We lived nearly next door to each other, and our daughters were born just four months apart. It was an exciting time for both of us, as we embarked on that new phase of our lives—the sleep-deprived giddiness of new parenthood. Many of us have our own favorite Peter memories, and I’m sure the majority of them feature the Peter I got to know well in 1987—a thoughtful, patient, generous man with a lively mind, a compassionate heart, and a playful wit.

Peter was born in 1952 to Sonia and George Goldsmith. He was raised in Princeton, and later in Sherborn, Mass., the second oldest of four children, all of whom maintained close relationships with him throughout his life. His mother was a school teacher and his father a physics professor, and Peter and his siblings grew up in a household where books, music, and progressive politics were highly valued.

Peter was broadly trained, both as an academic and as an administrator. He earned his undergraduate degree in English at Boston College, where his father, George, still teaches. He continued his education there, obtaining a master’s degree in sociology. He went on to attain a doctorate in 1982 from the renowned anthropology department at the University of Chicago, researching the Afro-American people of Coastal Georgia and presenting a thesis subtitled Ideology and Class Consciousness in a Coastal Georgia Community.

Peter’s preparation for and experience in administration was equally broad and accomplished. He stayed at Chicago for three years, serving as assistant dean of students in the School of Social Sciences. He then was chosen as director of studies at Mathey College at Princeton University, where he was responsible for the academic needs and guidance of 500 first- and second-year Princeton students, serving—in a capacity that Peter later helped create at Oberlin—as a sort of mega class dean. In 1993 Peter moved to Dartmouth, where he served with distinction as dean of first-year students for six years.

We were fortunate when Peter joined the Oberlin community in 1999 as dean of Student Life and Services, a wide-ranging and demand- ing position that required his considerable tact, skill, patience, wisdom, and compassion. Perhaps still in the glow of excitement for this new challenge, Peter wrote, “I am delighted to have been chosen Oberlin’s next dean of students. It is Oberlin’s students, above all, that attracted me to the position. Their history of social activism, their diversity, their commitment to intellectual discourse and artistic excellence—these are the things to which I am committed, and they are at the heart of the finest college experiences.” These were Peter’s true passions, and he took pleasure in moving Oberlin closer to some of these shared ideals.

Those who were closer to Peter’s day-to-day work at Oberlin know better than I how much he accomplished professionally in the past five years. I know that he took a somewhat shattered and dispirited division and, one by one, solved problems, healed mistrusts, and brought carefully considered programs into being. As Dean Clayton Koppes described in his letter to the Oberlin community, Peter “improved and expanded student housing at Oberlin, helping to integrate students’ residential and social lives with their academic experiences. He implemented the class dean system so that every student could be linked with at least one support person to help individualize the College administration. He was instrumental in creating the Office of the Ombudsperson so students could learn to resolve conflicts through an informal and confidential process.”

Peter Kirsch ’79, an Oberlin trustee who worked closely with Peter Goldsmith on many student life projects, has written, “Perhaps Peter will be best remembered at Oberlin for his ability to maintain perspective in the face of challenges—personal, political, and social. His unwavering commitment to civil discourse (and his vigorous and energetic pursuit of such dialogue on a campus that was increasingly facing a threat of losing its civility) will be a legacy to Oberlin and its students for generations to come and one for which we all owe him a priceless debt of gratitude.”

Peter loved teaching. At Oberlin, despite the enormous demands on his time, he relished teaching a course of his own design, The Idea of Folk in American Culture. He enjoyed helping students reconsider their ideas of folk culture, ethnicity, and aesthetic sensibility. Renowned among friends and colleagues as a good listener, Peter was able to patiently but persistently draw out the best in his students.

Peter was also passionate about music. He was an accomplished mandolin player and always enjoyed jamming with other musicians and listening to a wide range of music, particularly folk and jazz. He worked for many years on his book, Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records, which was published in 1998, and which he viewed with quiet pride.

In late February of this year, Peter took a medical leave of absence, believing he had a medical condition that could probably be corrected surgically. His escalating pain before the surgery, however, foreshadowed the surgeon’s discovery that Peter was suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer. Even then, Peter had a brief hope that he would be able to return to work for a while, finish projects he had started, and, in his own careful, caring way, say goodbye to a wider portion of the College community. But the devastating swiftness of his illness made all of that impossible.

Peter was at a peak moment in his life. He adored and was deeply devoted to his children, Ben and Joanna, and was happily and proudly involved in their eighth- and eleventh-grade lives. He was also head-over-heels in love with Julie Kalish, whom he married in late December before his illness was suspected. Julie brought much lightness and great joy to Peter, and they were looking forward to many years of happiness.

Peter was devastated by leaving the people he loved, yet he was able to find serenity and composure in the last weeks of his life. Many of us might have been overwhelmed by the course of such a disease or embittered by self-pity. Yet Peter was able to move through his last days at home, surrounded by those he loved, with acceptance and grace. Despite pain and loss, he retained a humility and perspective that were in keeping with all the other days he had lived.

Both in his living and in his dying, Peter was an inspiration to many of us. It would do us well in this difficult time—locally, nationally, and in the world—to remember Peter’s patience, civility, intelligence, and compassion.